Fly fishing with chironomids is one of the most effective techniques for stillwater fly fishing. This type of fly fishing often doesn’t evoke images of high testosterone hundred-yard casts and ripping giant seven-inch streamers into the mouth of a toothy brown trout. Don’t be fooled though. The fish that are willing to eat these millions of aquatic insects are almost always no less mean and toothy. Sometimes big trout want a large steak, while at other times they prefer popcorn or M&Ms. It’s up to you to be skilled enough to adapt to their moods and food opportunities. The tactics used to fish these smallish stillwater patterns require skill and patience, but they will pay off with not only trout, but other species. In this first of a two-part series, we discuss the fundamentals and fine-tuning of chironomid fly fishing. In part 2, we discuss some of the more advanced techniques with chironomids. The information in these podcasts will help you in any stillwater situation, including warm-water environments, and are a hugely important arrow in your fly fishing quiver.
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KEY TAKEAWAYS: FLY FISHING WITH CHIRONOMIDS
- Midge/Chironomids are everywhere within most fisheries.
- They make up a huge portion of the biomass.
- Always look for active fish near the surface because active fish are very often feeding fish.
- Spend around 15-30 minutes in one place before moving.
- When fish feed on chironomids, they often congregate.
- Phil believes that the response to chironomids is Pavlovian, meaning that the fish will take midge/chironomid imitations even when the naturals are not present.
CHIRONOMID LIFE CYCLE: LARVA
- Chironomids have a complete metamorphosis: larva, pupa, and adult.
- The larva is often called the bloodworm because many retain hemoglobin which turns them red.
- The larva can be 100 to 200 feet down and in oxygen-depleted areas where detritus is present.
- Many larvae are free-living, but many also construct tubes along the mud-water interface along the bottom.
- You find the larvae in muddy bottoms as well as over weedbeds.
- To begin with, start near the bottom when imitating the larval stage or concentrate near the weedbeds that they may be using.
- Think about currents and wind and how they may be pushing dislodged larva toward the surface.
- Time of season and day are important for the larval form: low-light periods, early in the season, early in the morning, summer when fish have moved into deeper water, and late fall when other food sources are less available.
CHIRONOMID LIFE CYCLE: PUPA
- The pupa is exposed during its entire stage, so it becomes particularly important for trout and other fish.
- Apolysis is the separation of the shuck, which traps gas between the shuck and adult inside causing the pupa to be very shiny.
- Pupa often stage for days, suspending just above the bottom in dense clouds. As the pupa elevate toward the surface trout will follow them through the different levels of the water column.
CHIRONOMID LIFE CYCLE: ADULT
- Mornings and evenings are normally the best times to experiment with adult patterns.
TARGETING SPECIFIC WATER LEVELS
- Identify major areas that are likely habitat.
- Identify areas that are active with chironomids through signs. This is “the Field of Dreams” idea; if the conditions are right, the fish will eventually be there.
- Moving fish
- Other anglers having success
- Pupal shucks
- Adults flying around
- Begin to experiment with various depths through different presentations.
- Indicators have two advantages: depth control and variable speeds on retrieve.
- Flies should be at least a little different from the naturals to attract attention to your patterns.
- Small differences can make a huge difference in success.
- Size, color, aggressiveness of retrieve all work together.
- The longer adult chironomids are alive, often the darker they will become.
- Throughout the hatch, there is a gradual down-sizing, so if you see #12 adults, the pupae may be #10, etc.
- Often larger flies may help you to stand out in the hoard of midge in the water.
- Start from dark to light (black to chrome).
- Black with a red rib works everywhere.
SOME TOP FLY PATTERNS
- Patterns featuring white beads, such as Chan’s Chironomid Pupa, are great for turbid and slightly stained water, but fish will often shy away from the stark white beadhead patterns in really clear water.
- Phil’s Black Sally is great for clearer water situations when patterns featuring white beads seem too overt.
- Chromies in lots of different variations can be very effective.
- The collaborator is a good all-round pattern.
- Attractors like Chan’s Beadhead Chironomid Bomber can the ticket at times.
- Depth and retrieve are the most important steps to get right (it always trumps pattern).
- Use double fly rigs when possible.
- Speed of retrieve can vary from dead-drift to rise and fall of the chironomid pattern when using indicator rigs.
- With light winds, cast against the wind and let it drift your chironomids back toward you, almost as if you were in a river.
- Attention to detail is critical, particularly when it comes to depth and speed.
- Lines for close in and short casts of awkward indicator rigs
- Rio’s Extreme Indicator
- Rio’s Trout/Salmon
Leaders and Rigging
- Rio Indicator leader
- Barrel Swivel #12, #14, #16
- 2 feet from swivel to point fly
- If necessary, add fluorocarbon tippet from the 10 foot leader to the swivel to extend the depth.
- Another option is to add a full level leader (10 to 13 feet of level 1x to 3x) to the swivel.
- Sliding dropper
- You can do a similar setup with a bloodknot or a triple surgeons knot.
- He prefers the sliding dropper to flies that are dropper style, i.e., tied from the point fly.
LINKS AND RESOURCES FOR THE PODCAST
Phil’s Website: Fly Craft Angling
Phil’s Email Address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Phil and Brian’s Stillwater Store
Brian Chan’s website
Fly fishing with chironomids is a great fly fishing skill in itself, but you can also take these ideas and skills into other areas of your fly fishing, primarily when fishing for trout, Great Lakes steelhead and browns, and many different warm-water species. As far as stillwater fly fishing is concerned, chironomids are hugely important in most bodies of water, and because they are so prolific, trout will at times key on these and ignore nearly all other food sources. Fly fishing with chironomids is not for everyone, but if you prefer catching lots of big trout to going for a boat ride, then give them a try when it’s obvious that you need to be fishing them. If you have any questions about indicators or anything else having to do with chironomids and fly fishing, feel free to ask a question in the comments below. Good luck!
Is chironomid fishing typically a spring time event, or are they around through summer and fall aswell.
You can catch fish on chironomids year-round. Some bodies of water have some great chironomid action in summer and fall, but there are so many other food sources in the summer, and at times, still in the fall. The fish get used to seeing chironomids, so they will often take them when they’re not actively feeding.
Because the presentation can at times be a little slower and because it does not cover as much water at times, you need to balance locating fish and presenting to fish that you have already found. If there are no major chironomid hatches, then I usually start with larger patterns and more active searching. Once you find the fish you can take a stomach sample.
The body of water will dictate how you approach the day’s fishing. Basic takeaway is that chironomids can work year-round, but other presentations can at times be a much better option.
Hope that helps!